Title: The Woolgrower’s Companion
Author: Joy Rhoades
Published: February 27th 201
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Genres: Fiction, Australian,, Historical Rural
Rating: 4.5 stars
Australia 1945. Until now Kate Dowd has led a sheltered life on Amiens, her family’s sprawling sheep station in northern New South Wales. The horrors of war have for the most part left her untouched. But with her father succumbing to wounds he’s borne since the Great War, the management of the farm is increasingly falling on Kate’s shoulders.
With only the sheep-rearing book The Woolgrower’s Companion to guide her, Kate rises to the challenge. However the arrival of two Italian POW labourers unsettles not only the other workers, but Kate too – especially when she finds herself drawn to the enigmatic Luca Canali.
Then she receives devastating news. The farm is near bankrupt and the bank is set to repossess. Given just eight weeks to pay the debt, Kate is now in a race to save everything she holds dear.
The Woolgrower’s Companion is a historical fiction novel, penned by debut novelist Joy Rhoades. It is an immersive pastoral tale that combines a hint of romance and a touching coming of age story, along with serious issues that plague the sheep station of Amiens, the central setting focus of the novel.
Opening in the year 1945, The Woolgrower’s Companion zones in on the story of one woman, Kate Dowd, living on her family’s expansive sheep station property in the north of New South Wales. Although the end of the war is looming and Kate’s life has remained sheltered since the outbreak of war, a change occurs when Kate’s father’s health takes a turn for the worst. Suddenly, Kate is thrust in a very different position on her family’s property in order to maintain their livelihood. With the help of a book, The Woolgrower’s Companion, a guide of sorts, Kate begins to take charge of Amiens. Kate’s life also changes when two Italian POW labourers are sent in to help the failing Amiens, which has been subject to drought and fledgling profits. One of the POW labourers, Luca Canali, begins to capture Kate’s heart, which offers complications for this young married woman. As Kate continues to plough through in an effort to save her family’s legacy from utter destruction and bankruptcy, she is also faced with a number of personal crises.
I am going to sound like a broken record, but I will say it again. Often the best stories, especially in the historical fiction genre, are those drawn from real life experiences. These lived experiences allow the lines of fiction and real life to blur. The end result is often a superior historical novel, rich in experience, authenticity and honesty. This is the case with The Woolgrower’s Companion, the impressive debut novel by Joy Rhoades. The Woolgrower’s Companion is a novel drawn from the first hand experiences of the author’s grandmother, who lived on an agricultural property in outback Australia during the war years. The Woolgrower’s Companion is carefully composed and it is also inspired by the struggles faced by the author’s grandmother. It adds much weight to this compelling tale.
There are a number of resounding themes in this novel. Firstly, Rhoades diligently works to highlight the Australian female experience of World War II, which is not often brought to the floor. When the book opens, we get the feeling that Kate is a carbon copy of women in this era and how they were expected to conduct themselves. Kate is a dutiful daughter and wife. She immediately comes across as naive and sheltered. She is not expected to voice her opinion, or step on the toes of the men around her. However, The Woolgrower’s Companion is a novel that explores the coming of age story of a woman who must step into the shoes of a man and perform duties that are outside the role of women at this time.
Other aspects of this superior historical novel that are thoroughly deserving of our attention is the treatment of indigenous Australians in The Woolgrower’s Companion. Through a sub character, Kate’s maid Daisy, we gain a greater understanding of the plight of Aboriginal women in this era. Rhoades touches on the stolen generation and the treatment of half-caste individuals. It is a cruel history lesson, but an important one to highlight. Linked to this are the social mores and attitudes prevalent in relation to the POW labourers and the Italian people by Australian citizens. This aspect of the narrative represents another scathing history lesson.
Rhoades also focuses her novel on issues of PTSD, still largely unrecognised at this point in time. Kate’s father is clearly suffering the effects of PTSD from his time in the Great War. His condition seems to be exacerbated by his wife’s death, the state of affairs on his property and his failing memory. Rhoades works hard to illuminate this sad experience for the reader.
The beacon of light in The Woolgrower’s Companion comes in the form of Kate’s and Luca Canali, the POW labourer sent to work on Amiens, relationship. Rhoades handles their interactions well; she captures the forbidden romance, sexual tension, dependence and sense of longing that passes between the two characters. It is a bittersweet romance and memorable exchanges between the two drew me further into the pages of this novel.
Readers will find Rhoades excels in her presentation of the time period and pure Australian setting. Rhoades peppers her first novel with rounds of stunning descriptive prose, evoking the arid landscape, as well as the common fauna that inhabits rural Australia. Rhoades also takes us deep into the heart of the outback through her writing, which accurately represents the harsh conditions, heat, sparseness and the dry conditions, where you are constantly battling the elements. The setting aspect of The Woolgrower’s Companion impressed me greatly.
Before I make my closing comments on The Woolgrower’s Companion, I must acknowledge the physical composition of this novel, which I appreciated very much. Each chapter opening begins with an introductory quote from The Woolgrower’s Companion, a book that acts as a bible to Kate when she must take the reins of Amiens. It was a lovely touch that added a sense of originality to the novel. I also urge you to read the Author’s Note and even try the wholesome Country Women’s Association recipes contained at the back of this book.
The Woolgrower’s Companion is a poignant tale that encapsulates a short-term, ten months in the life of a determined young woman and her fight against the land, as well as the establishment. It is a soulful and touching tribute to Australia’s past, its people and the land.
The Woolgrower’s Companion by Joy Rhoades was published on 27th February 2017 by Penguin Books Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Woolgrower’s Companion, Joy Rhoades, visit here
The Woolgrower’s Companion is book #88 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge